A lot of people are asking how they can help farmers in the midst of the current dairy crisis and want to know where they can source their milk to ensure the producer gets a fair reward.

There is understandably some confusion over who is paying farmers a fair price and who is not right now. It is true that Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose are still paying their dedicated liquid milk suppliers over 30 pence a litre (the average cost of production on farms) for milk, whilst some others now pay considerably less. However, the reason a lot of farmers are receiving such a poor price for their milk is that it being used to make butter, cheese and yoghurts that appear on the shelves of these same supermarkets.

So, whilst I applaud the retailers named above for their continuing commitment to paying a fair price, this still only accounts for a relatively small number of farmers. These are the approximate number of producers that they have enlisted for dedicated liquid milk supply:

Tesco 650
Sainsbury’s 320
Waitrose 50
M&S 42

These 1,062 farmers represent only around 11% of the remaining producers in England & Wales today. For the rest, the current situation is very uncomfortable. It is now estimated that dairy farmer numbers in England and Wales will halve by 2025 – leaving only 5,000 and it doesn’t take much to work out what those farms will look like in a world that continues to put volume before value. This is why we want to win recognition for the value of milk from seasonally grazed, free range herds at the farm gate, regardless of where the milk is purchased.

Despite a steady stream of enquiries from consumers asking where they can buy free range milk, making it widely available is going to take time. This is because around 80% of the liquid milk produced in the UK is sold through the major supermarkets and there are now only two big milk processors (Arla and Muller-Wiseman) who really have the capacity to deliver the volumes of milk they require. These ‘super dairies’ strive to achieve economies of scale and logistics are king in ensuring the retailers’ appetite for cheap milk is fed. At the same time, a volume-driven industry leads many farmers to feel the only scope they have to counter falling prices, which have come about as a result of oversupply, is to milk more cows and chase higher milk yields – exacerbating the current crisis.

Most milk supply contracts offered by milk buyers to farmers now incentivise the production of high volumes of milk, with ‘volume bonuses’ of over 2 to 4 pence a litre being awarded to those churning out several thousand litres a day. Conversely, many smaller farmers effectively have to pay the dairy companies to collect their milk. This is why the dumbing down of milk to the status of ‘white water’ commodity actually suits big retailers and processors. The perception that all milk is the same enables them to collect milk from wherever they want and avoids the irritating need for segregation different lines that slow factory throughput. So, when retailers say “we don’t need anymore brands and labels – they confuse the consumer”, I think what they really mean is “brands and labels get in the way of our well-oiled industry machine”.

If you want to be able to make a simple choice about where your milk comes from and know that the price you paid enriched the life of farmer and his cows, our countryside and your diet, please support us. Free Range Dairy is a Community Interest Company (CIC) – a community with a common interest in safeguarding those values and the Pasture Promise identifies milk and dairy products from farms where cows have the freedom to graze for a minimum of 6 months each year.

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